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Quality, inclusive Early Childhood Education in Aotearoa New Zealand: Under-funded and neglected

In the early 1980s I became qualified and began teaching in early childhood centres. After eight years teaching, I lectured in early childhood teacher education for several years. When my first child Maggie was two years old, I began supervising at our local Playcentre where she and her little sister were enrolled. Maggie was diagnosed with intellectual and physical disabilities when she was a baby. After Maggie was diagnosed, I became much more aware of what and who we value and don’t value in society and how being marginalised impacts on people’s identity and lives. Deficit views of disability dominate, and are often taken for granted as true in most situations. It is quite usual (and frustrating!) for the person communicating a deficit view to assume they are being kind and charitable.  Belonging, diversity and human rights took on a greater significance for me when I became a parent and advocate for my girl. I began to study and research in the discipline of Disability Studies in Education, human rights and inclusion. Eventually I got my doctorate.

Quality inclusive early childhood care and education (ECCE) benefits everybody immediately and into the long term. Low quality ECCE has a negative effect on children’s well-being, learning and success. Hence, the importance of getting it right and supporting access to a quality system and experience for every child and family.  

I recently heard Hannah Noble,  a Christchurch-based parent who is also qualified as an early childhood teacher, speak about her aspirations for her three-year-old child, Jesiah, and his early childhood care and education.

The biggest thing is I want him to develop are certain dispositions and ways of being. To be curious and interested in his world, how it works and to want to learn. To persist, and not give up on things. Life so far hasn’t been easy but that’s not excuse give up. I want him to be involved in his world – to have relationships with others and make an impact in a way that suits him. I want him to be the best “Jesiah” that he can be.

Hannah’s aspirations are no different from most parents and whānau, including ours. The fact that Jesiah has a health condition and difficulties processing information or that Maggie ‘thinks differently’ does not change the fact that they have the same rights as any other child to learn, participate and succeed. Their needs or differences are not something additional, they are part of them. Like many families with disabled children, Hannah has found out that she has sometimes had to fight and advocate hard for Jesiah’s rights, strengths and needs to be recognised by others. Many teachers and centres are struggling alongside families because government funding and support doesn’t match what is needed to provide quality, inclusive care and education. ECCE services in New Zealand have had their funding frozen for the past six years. Many are in financial difficulties as a result. Jesiah’s community-based ECCE centre  makes endless applications and sometimes has to plead with the Ministry of Education for the resources and professional support they need to create the best conditions for every child and family in their community. The main ways to save costs in ECCE is to increase numbers of children enrolled and attending, decrease staffing and employ fewer staff with qualifications and experience. Small group size, high teacher:child ratios and qualified staff are the three most significant indicators of quality care and education. Centres and families shouldn’t have to fight for some children to receive the resources and support they’re entitled to.

Quality, inclusive early childhood care and education should be accessible and available to all.

About the author

Dr Bernadette Macartney has been working in early childhood education in New Zealand for 35 years. She gained her doctorate in education through the University of Canterbury in 2010, specialising in the areas of Disability Studies in Education and Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). Her thesis focussed on the experiences of families with a young disabled child in early childhood education in New Zealand. Dr Macartney has researched, published and presented widely in the area of inclusive education, and stood for four years as co-convenor of the Inclusive Education Action Group, and remains involved with the organisation. She is mum to Maggie, who turns 21 next year and who has intellectual and physical disabilities.

Bernadette has recently complete a background article for CPAG on the barriers to inclusive education, which is available now available to be downloaded.

Early childhood education and barriers to inclusivity: Working toward a fairer system